Stress coping and evolution of aerobic exercise performance: corticosterone levels in voles from a selection experiment [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Małgorzata M. Lipowska, Edyta T. Sadowska, Ulf Bauchinger, and Paweł Koteja

The locomotor performance achieved in a challenging situation depends not only on physiological limitations, such as the aerobic exercise capacity, but also on behavioral characteristics, such as adequate coping with stress. The stress response is mediated largely by the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, through modulated release of glucocorticoids. We used a unique experimental evolution model system to test the hypothesis that the evolution of an increased aerobic exercise performance can be facilitated by modification of the glucocorticoid-related stress-coping mechanisms. Bank voles (Myodes glareolus) from ‘aerobic’ (A) lines, selected for 22 generations for high maximum swim-induced rate of oxygen consumption (VO2,swim), achieved a 64% higher VO2,swim than those from unselected, control lines. The temporal pattern of exercise during the swimming trial also evolved, and the A-line voles achieved VO2,swim later in the course of the trial, which indicates a modification of the stress response characteristics. Both VO2,swim and the average metabolic rate measured during the trial tended to increase with baseline corticosterone level, and decreased with the post-exercise corticosterone level. Thus, increased baseline corticosterone level promotes high metabolic performance, but a high corticosterone response to swimming acts as an inhibitor rather than stimulator of intense activity. However, neither of the corticosterone traits differed between the A-selected and control lines. Thus, the experiment did not provide evidence that evolution of increased aerobic performance is facilitated by the modification of glucocorticoid levels. The results, however, do not exclude the possibility that other aspects of the HPA axis function evolved in response to the selection.

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